Bringing “New” People Into the Planning Process

A Seattle backyard cottage–the kind of development some neighbors say will bring unacceptable density to single-family neighborhoods. via

At an early-morning Downtown Seattle Association breakfast at BlueAcre Seafood last month, the subject was neighborhood involvement in city planning and the speaker (along with Capitol Hill Community Council president Zach Pullin and me) was Kathy Nyland, the Georgetown activist-turned-Department-of-Neighborhoods-Director who’s in charge of getting neighborhood residents involved in implementing the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda.

The question Nyland and Pullin were attempting to answer was this: How can the city get renters, tech workers, and other Seattle residents who don’t participate in the traditional system of neighborhood councils or go to traditional “neighborhood” meetings involved in shaping the future of the city? The problem Nyland and Pullin described is that neighborhood councils tend to be ossified and, as a result, exclusionary, dominated by 50-and-older white homeowners with little incentive to invite newcomers into their midst. Nyland said she hears from those folks all the time; what she wants to do is add new voices to the chorus of retired single-family homeowners. As part of that effort, DON recently took over the HALA outreach process, and actively encouraged people of color, recent immigrants, and renters–who make up half the city–to apply for seats on the four HALA community focus groups.

But integrating new residents and renters into the HALA process remains a challenge, and the loudest voices–the people that occupy most of the city’s field of vision–are the longtime neighborhood activists who have plenty of time to spend at long neighborhood meetings where the overwhelming sentiment is anti-renter, anti-development, and anti-change. At the same time, people who feel alienated from city planning, or who feel (sometimes correctly) that their voices aren’t welcome or being heard, are left on the sidelines and often have no idea how to make their voices heard.

(If you want an example of how NOT to participate in traditional neighborhood organizations, look no further than this guy, a self-described Fremont resident who apparently showed up at the Wallingford Community Council and demanded a seat on their governing board. In a see-I-told-you-they-all-hate-renters gotcha post on the Urbanist blog, he complained that he had been “sidelined” from “my seat” in an elaborate process designed to ensure that no renters would be represented on the board. He does not appear to have participated in the Wallingford Community Council at any previous point, which probably explains the main reason he wasn’t elected: As Nyland and other urbanists who are actually working to organize renters and other disenfranchised folks repeatedly emphasize, you can’t just show up and demand to be taken seriously, you have to organize, and that means getting people to show up in numbers. Tales of woe like this one do nothing but reinforce the common misconception that renters and urbanists have no interest in context or history and don’t care about the concerns of longtime residents. Pullin, in contrast, is working actively on Capitol Hill to organize renters, who represent more than half the city, as my old PubliCola colleague Josh Feit reports today).

So as pro-HALA groups like Seattle for Everyone try to gather steam in neighborhoods across the city for the still-controversial “Grand Bargain”–developer fees for affordable housing as a tradeoff for greater density–I strongly suggest that they attend meetings like the one I went to late last month, where city planning and neighborhood staffers faced off against an angry crowd of more than 100 neighbors who showed up to voice their near-universal disapproval of the proposal at a meeting of the Queen Anne Community Council on top of Queen Anne Hill.

“Those of us who are involved in planning in our communities for a very long time are used to being involved at city hall. … Usually, you go to a public hearing and you get to speak. You get to say, ‘If a guy builds a 27 foot [detached accessory dwelling unit] next to my house, it’s going to wipe out my sun, it’s going to wipe out my light and air,’ and that’s not what’s being done.”

To kick the meeting off, Marty Kaplan, a community council member, homeowner, and former city planning commissioner, offered a lengthy introduction to the two city officials who presented the details of the proposal, Office of Planning and Community Development senior planner Geoff Wendlandt and planning commission staffer Jesseca Brand, which set the (accusatory) tone for the rest of the discussion.

“One of the problems that I have is that those of us in the neighborhoods were left out of the conversation” about HALA, Kaplan said. “Those of us who are involved in planning in our communities for a very long time are used to being involved at city hall. … Usually, you go to a public hearing and you get to speak. You get to say, “If a guy builds a 27 foot [detached accessory dwelling unit] next to my house, it’s going to wipe out my sun, it’s going to wipe out my light and air,” and that’s not what’s being done.”

Kaplan continued: “There’s a lot of things that will eventually take away a lot of the physical things that you enjoy in your house, or even if you’re in an apartment. … There’s a lot of impacts in here [and] we’ve been used to being able to talk about this with planners and city hall and come up with some pretty good and respectful partnerships.” In contrast, Kaplan said, the city is now trying to shove a “one-size-fits-all” approach down longtime neighborhood residents’ throats.

Wendlandt and Brand fielded Kaplan’s comments and complaints from neighbors for about two hours. Most of those complaints fell into one of three categories: 1) Concerns that the city has failed to involve neighbors in the HALA process; 2) Complaints that HALA will upzone the entire city; and 3) Objections related to “concurrency,”  the idea that the city needs  to add roads, transit service, and sewers before adding housing. (The urbanist response to those complaints, in turn: Neighborhoods are well-represented on the four HALA focus groups and the city continues to hold meetings like the very one at which this comment was made; HALA will not upzone the whole city, though it will expand some urban villages and make it slightly easier to build backyard corrages; and Seattle is expected to add about 120,000 people in the next 20 years, and those people need places to live).

Another popular objection, one I’ve heard many times over the years in Seattle, was that the city “already has enough capacity to accommodate all the growth we’re going to get,” a claim based on the absurd premise that many thousands of small apartments and single-family homes will be demolished across Seattle so that all the city’s land can be redeveloped to its maximum zoning capacity. The “existing zoning capacity” objection also ignores the fact that HALA, unlike roughshod redevelopment, will actually build affordable housing, which is what everyone says they want.

So what’s the takeaway from all this? For urbanists, anyway, it’s that if you don’t like the way neighborhood groups are framing development or the shape they want to take the neighborhoods we all live in, it’s important to be meaningfully engaged–not just showing up alone to a meeting or two to shake your fist at the way things are, but turning out in numbers to learn, listen, and participate, both in traditional homeowner-dominated neighborhood groups and new organizations that challenge the status quo. For city officials, it’s that engaging people outside traditional neighborhood groups is critical, and that those groups don’t represent any consensus except a consensus among themselves. Renters, low-income people, disabled and elderly residents, and others who aren’t usually at the table need to be invited in and listened to, whether that means outreach specifically aimed at renters (guess what? When you “inform” a neighborhood by placing flyers on people’s doors or porches, you miss most of the people who live in apartments) or broader outreach at events and in groups that include a more representative sample of Seattle residents than, say, a community council or a private Nextdoor group.  Ultimately, as Nyland noted at the DSA meeting at Blueacre, inviting more people into the planning process may also mean deemphasizing the voices that have traditionally held sway at city hall; the city is well aware of what single-family homeowners tend to think, but they may not be as familiar with what low-income renters or homeless residents think. For those voices to be heard, some people, however reluctantly, are going to have to sit and listen.

27 thoughts on “Bringing “New” People Into the Planning Process”

  1. I’m concerned that Kathy Nyland as a employee of the city continues to advocate for density vs single family zoning. I would expect more neutrality. Maybe it is because of age (younger) or new to the city but folks seem to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that the concern was that families were leaving the city, and Seattle schools were in terrible shape because of this. Now that families have returned the activist want to up zone neighborhoods for smaller units and push families back out to the suburbs. I understand that these families are wealthier than the ones who fled 30 years ago but the laws of economics can not be repealed.

    1. Seattle has plenty of room to accommodate new multi-family development without upzoning single-family neighborhoods. The City’s own Development Capacity Report (Sept. ’14) documented some 224K new units that could be built under existing zoning. Most of that capacity is in urban villages and urban centers. The City is also proposing upzones within those centers and villages and some modest expansions of some urban village boundaries, so the city’s development capacity will increase even further.

      1. These comments are pretty much exactly how the perspective of people who are already homeowners is going to systematically differ from those who aren’t:

        “Seattle has plenty of room to accommodate new multi-family development without upzoning single-family neighborhoods. ”


        Non-homeowner/young person (who’s not a tech worker):

        “Given that the median price of a home in a small multi-family (duplex triplex etc) is $398k versus $673k for the median single family home, how much city land should be open to the type of home I might be able to afford versus reserved for a type I will never be able to afford?”

  2. Kathy Nyland can also tell you that her own community council is not anti growth. But don’t let facts get in the way of an ideological narrative.

  3. You and Josh continue to make this claim over and over again:

    “Pullin, in contrast, is working actively on Capitol Hill to organize renters, who represent more than half the city, as my old PubliCola colleague Josh Feit reports today).”

    But it’s not true.

    Renters do not represent more than half of the city. 52% of housing units in Seattle are rental units. But more people still live in owner-occupied housing, because more people live in each owner occupied unit (on average, 1.26 times more people live in each owner-occupied unit than in rental units).

    The Department of Planning website summarizes the numbers as follows:

    “Tenure (owner- and renter-occupancy): In 2010, a bit more than half of Seattle’s occupied housing units (51.9 percent) were rentals. The rest (48.1 percent) were inhabited by their owners.

    Household sizes tend to be larger in owner-occupied housing than in renter-occupied housing. In 2010 there were 2.31 persons per household in Seattle’s owner-occupied units compared to 1.83 persons per household in renter-occupied units. Due to larger household sizes, owner-occupied units still house more than half of Seattle’s overall household population.”

    At the rate things are going, one imagines that renters will be the majority one day soon. Perhaps if we had updated numbers for 2016, that would already be true. But at at least based in the numbers above (which are the ones Josh and Pullin clearly are referring to), it’s not true.

    1. One might speculate the additional persons in owner-occupied are somewhat more likely than renter-occupiers to be children and thus not really owners of the property they occupy. Any stats on that?

    2. Thank you Kingsinger for some actual numbers from an official source. If all the young people believe they are entitled to an apartment of their own, this city will be in a construction zone for years. Why not get more creative with shared housing? Even families have been known to share a house in order to buy their first home. What makes anyone think that these difficult conditions for rent and first time home buyers were not even more difficult than in the past? When I was looking for a house in 1976, the one I still live in, I had to get married because banks wouldn’t count more than 50% of a woman’s income — since women supposedly worked for pin money only. The interest rates were in the 14-18 percent range and you needed at least 20 percent down. Obviously, like most young people then, I had to borrow money from family and friends for the down payment since I made only $11,000 a year, maybe $40,000 in today’s terms, and that was after years of saving. I couldn’t afford the first remodel to the house in over 50 years until just 4 years ago. So start thinking about some more creative solutions that might allow you more space and a more pleasant living environment, even if you have to share for a few years. Unless you enjoy living in a 300 square foot apodment, of course. There are many other alternatives if you investigate them, but you have to do the research and the networking yourself. Don’t expect the city to be of much help. They’re too busy processing building permits.

    3. 90,000 new residents since 2010. About 26,000 new housing units in same period. Overwhelmingly the majority are brother single family homes or owner occupied.

      The majority is already here., but keep lying for the cause! It’s a great look!

  4. Turning out in numbers at evening meetings means you will by definition be excluding the voices of parents with young kids. There are a lot of parents in my local greenways group, but they can’t come out to evening meetings.

    Free childcare would improve things, but only if it’s an earlier meeting (7-9pm, which is when my local community council meets, falls right in the range of bedtime). Of course, I can understand how community councils might not be able to afford to provide free childcare, but that is something the city should definitely be doing for open houses.

  5. From everything I’ve read and from the Hala propaganda meetings I’ve attended, it’s quite clear Mayor Murray and his Hala minions are not interested in community feedback. Perhaps this is because they’ve already made up their minds that all homeowners are conservative, wealthy, and self-interested NIMBYs. You have made such implications yourself in this blog. I would like to know on what basis you come to that conclusion, especially in a district like the 48th, which is the most liberal district in the state.

    Has anyone ever done a survey that might convey homeowners actual opinions and not just present a gross generalization ascribed to us? I would also like to know how the urban myth continues that homeowners hate renters continues to resonate, also without any evidence of this. At least 30% of Wallingford homes, from what I’ve read and experienced in my neighborhood, are being rented and no one has run them out of town or failed to include them in neighborhood block fairs.

    These crass generalizations of renter vs home owners are childish and do not advance knowledge of the issues. Do we assume that elected officials, who happen to be homeowners, are by definition renter-haters? I’m also told by some who consider themselves “urbanists” that all baby-boomers hate millennials. This would mean that many parents and grandparents hate their children and grandchildren.

    It’s time for those who participate in public discussions, which by definition are political, elevate the level of discussion at least to the level of informed debate that doesn’t engage in Trumpian-type empty claims and ad hominen arguments. Congrats on your position on the Fremont guy who thought he could just waltz in and win a position on a community council in a community he knew nothing about and expect to win. What arrogance!

    1. “Hala propaganda meetings”
      “Mayor Murray and his Hala minions”

      Talk about Trumpian. Jesus… Shrill, shrill Bertie. Perhaps a little self reflection would do you good.

    2. ” I would like to know on what basis you come to that conclusion, especially in a district like the 48th, which is the most liberal district in the state.”

      This is overly simplistic. it’s possible for homeowners to be quite liberal on many political issues–education funding, minimum wage, foreign policy, etc etc etc, and remain quite conservative on local land use issues. Fighting to restrict housing supply through classist, restrictive zoning is a deeply conservative cause, and that’s true even if the people fighting it are otherwise liberal.

  6. Thanks for a generally reasonable and well reasoned post.

    I won’t quibble with small stuff (of which there’s plenty), but do challenge what I view to be the single largest misstatement in your piece of how planning and political power work. You wrote:

    Most of those complaints [about the HALA] fell into one of three categories: 1) Concerns that the city has failed to involve neighbors in the HALA process …The urbanist response to those complaints, in turn: Neighborhoods are well-represented on the four HALA focus groups and the city continues to hold meetings like the very one at which this comment was made…

    The urbanist response ignores that the HALA committee itself was heavily stacked toward development interests (both profit and nonprofit). Neither renter nor homeowner interests (of any kind) were fairly represented. The “grand bargain” itself was a deal cut outside the HALA room and handed to them at the last minute. (The sole “neighborhood” representative, Cindi Barker, has spoken about this sham process.) Here are the “grand bargain” signers (with my notes on affiliations):
    Mayor Ed Murray
    Councilmember Mike O’Brien
    Ryan C. Bayne Ceis Bayne East (as in Tim Ceis)
    Jack McCullough Arguably most powerful developer lawyer in Seattle (
    Faith Li Pettis HALA Co-Chair Pacifica Law Group, public finance practice group (municipal Bond lawyer)
    David Wertheimer HALA Co-Chair Leader in the philanthropic sector
    Bill Rumpf Mercy Housing Northwest
    Jon Scholes Downtown Seattle Association
    Marty Kooistra Housing Development Consortium

    In other words, the content of the “deal” was baked in before the focus groups were even set up. At the focus groups, we are not allowed to deviate from the set agenda: accept the deal or don’t participate. I do not call this process either “well-represented” in the front end, or fair involvement after the fact.

    1. Honest question, meant with minimal snark: Can you name me a self-identified “neighborhood activist” from anywhere in the city that has supported adding density to their neighborhood? I’m not up on every neighborhood plan – it sounds like the Bitter Lake people are into having a new urban village up there, but I’ve got a hard time thinking of any others.

      The HALA committee’s first charge was to develop policies that would address the affordability crisis – inviting someone from an established neighborhood group to weigh in would be like inviting a wolf to the Committee for the Protection of Chickens. These groups have become de facto anti-density political action committees, and fought every attempt to allow the city to grow to accommodate the influx of new residents. And they’ve had a direct line to city decision makers for decades. Forgive me for not weeping for them this time.

      1. Yes: me. (FYI, I’m anotherneighborhoodactivist on Disqus blogs.) When we were negotiating zoning in the 1980s (that lead into the neighborhood plan in 90s) we accepted up zones in the triangle closest to downtown Fremont (Canal/39th/Fremont). It’s been filling up with multi-family since (some good, some ugly),

        A desire to have democratic planning is not anti-density per se. My top level anti-growth position (which is actually a “limits to growth exist” position) acknowledges that until limits are actually in our face (more likely shoved down our collective throat) due to our long time failure to accept biophysical reality, we need to adapt to growth as best we can. However, I do not accept the urbanist position that density in the core is the most effective adaptation methodology.

        I think the first thing we should do is address inequity. Doesn’t appear likely to happen. I don’t think global corporate capitalism is going to survive much longer because it is growth driven (doesn’t recognize limits), tends to increasing inequity, and those two trends lead directly toward collapse.

        BTW, your assumptions about the political dynamics around here, concluding with “direct line to city decision makers for decades” is laughable. How long have you been here? (Not meant as a snarky question.)

      2. Self-identified neighborhood activists who support adding additional density:

        Ben Broesamle, Magnolia
        Brock Howell, Maple Leaf
        Joshua Newman, Maple Leaf
        Charlie Cunniff, Columbia City
        Jesse Piedfort, Haller Lake
        Katherine MacKinnon, Ravenna
        Marco Lowe, Eastlake
        Rebecca Deehr, Othello
        Sara Nelson, Fremont
        Stephanie Pure, Fremont
        Phillip Duggan, Pinehurst

        I could go on for a while…

      3. Add me, Roger Pence, to the list also. I was a leader of the neighborhood planning process on North Beacon Hill during the 1990s. We embraced the urban village concept, to concentrate greater development in the core area of our community, where it could be close to future rail transit, where it would mean more built-in customers for our tiny business district.

        Several years ago, the City upzoned the core of North Beacon Hill from 40′ height limits to 65′. All the testimony from the community was in support, except for one lone voice. We need to kill once and for all this terrible and erroneous notion that neighborhood leaders and their organizations are anti-growth. It is just flat not true, and the people promoting it are either ignorant or malicious.

    2. Anti-housing NIMBY types do not represent renter interests.

      Single family zoning preservationists do not represent renter interests.

      Shrill, housed, baby boomers shrieking about limits to growth do not represent renter interests.

      Why should these people have had ANY seat at the HALA table?

      The path to a more equitable solution required that the anti-housing set [those that have worked diligently to create this shortage] did not have a large seat at the table.

      As indicated by Erica, your lot already gets more than its fair share to abuse the system. But yes, keep mansplaining about how “unfair” the HALA process is!

      1. Telling people they do not deserve a seat at the table—while remaining anonymous—is the hallmark of a troll. Is that the kind of dialogue you want? Or do you just want to shut down the conversation?

    3. Toby –

      I was part of the formal HALA discussions, am an 17-year+ organizer in Pinehurst, and I strongly support the HALA recommendations.

      Renee Staton

      1. Your name is not on the list of those at the main table. I don’t see you name on the ‘bargain’ either; were you involved in negotiating it.

      2. Not negotiating the bargain, but definitely had a voice in significant parts of the discussion. I am tired of people saying that only “developers” were included. I am a long-term neighborhood activist and I was included.

      3. I did not say you were not included in one of the subsidiary groups. I do object to the implications in statements like Rick Mohler’s claim (Wallyhood) that “the HALA panel also included neighborhood representation: Cindi Barker of the City Neighborhood Council.” Yes, she was in the room, and there were a couple other folks like you on subcommittees, but the “bargain” was in fact cooked in private by a few of the HALA members plus others whose names appears no where in the report. Are you seriously going to argue that the inclusionary[sic]-housing-in-exchange-for-more-density deal was done in a transparent process?

  7. OMG – the guy ran and lost. Now he is crying. Grow up buddy. Get involved and in time you will make friends and get elected. You can’t walk into any organization – telling everyone that you have a all the answers – and demand to be elected. Using passion and blind belief in your position does mean you should be elected. What a cry baby

    Michael Plunkett


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